This is the first section of a story I wrote awhile ago about Grandma Asborg Neset.
When I knew Grandma Neset she was old and stooped with a deeply wrinkled face. She did not like children and usually referred to me as dårlig jente (bad girl) although I was the person she asked to read the funny papers to her on Sundays; Dick Tracy was her favorite. Her house always smelled of boiled animal fat from the thin greasy soup she cooked.
I still know nothing else about Grandma Neset except that her given name was Asborg; she was born on October 8, 1867 near Kristiansand, Norway; came to America in 1910; bore six children and died at the North Haven Nursing Home in 1965, age 98. The photos I have, now restored and framed, are of a very stern woman—at ages 43, 62, 70 and 75.
It didn’t really occur to me until I was grown and claiming my history, years after her death, that Grandma Neset had a life before she came to America and that perhaps she sometimes longed for that previous life. I know just enough about that time and place, and about the circumstances of her life to imagine how it must have been.
It is a March day in 1910 and Asborg is an old 43 years. She’s in her small damp-darkened log house which sits almost on the shore of Byglandsfiorden, choppy today with the wind blowing small whitecaps through the air into cold mist. Year round the little house smells of mossy mold and wood smoke and of fish: fried, boiled, baked. Even though the small windows are stingy with light and kerosene is too expensive to waste on coziness, it’s warm inside and bread is baking—what could be better on such a day.
Asborg is so tired. Torgus has been gone for months and she has to figure out how to keep these kids fed and a little clean and a little happy, and how to keep herself from giving up. Asborg was never exactly a pretty woman but she was distinctive and elegant in her spareness. Those eyes and that hair of near-blackness and cheekbones of perfect prominence had led to her being taunted with asigøyner or gypsy when she was a kid.
Now she hardly knows or cares what she looks like anymore. Her sharp features lend themselves to gauntness emphasized by hair pulled too tightly back. She has no color in her cheeks, no sparkle in her eyes. When Beret knocks on the door she calls out kom inn with a tired welcome.
“God Morgen Asborg.”
“Nei, it’s not good to me, but sit and we’ll have coffee.”
Four fair-haired children, unkept and noisy, are shooed to another room where wooden beds line the walls and the family’s store of clothing and blankets is hanging on nails or stacked under the beds. It’s not a picture of plenty but it’s friendly enough. There’s the potent smell of boiling coffee and the tablecloth, where the women drink their one daily luxury and eat slices of dense white bread, is a glorious garden of stitchery: bluebells, red berries, green leaves.
Beret picks up a creased and coffee-stained pamphlet on the table. “What’s this?”
“Oh it’s what Torgus sent. Seems like where he’s got to in America is a good place.”
“Ja, but why does he want to be there; if he just stayed home and worked here, he could earn a good enough living.”
“Ja, but Beret, you know how he is, always wanting to be someplace else.”
Beret studies the pamphlet carefully. “I don’t believe this. It says you can have 160 acres of land for free if you just farm on it. That can’t be true.”
“Nei, you are right. Some people have come back you know.”
The rain continues, the dampness seeps into walls and clothes and the day grows even dimmer. The coffee cooks on the back of the stove to black oily bitterness and the women talk of woman things.
There’s a knock at the door. Beret’s Gunnar is here. “God Morgen Asborg. I’ve been to the store and Olav gave me this letter for you. He said it just came.”
”Kom inn, Gunnar. Kaffe for deg?”
“Nei. Beret, you’ll come home soon then?”
Asborg just holds the letter.
“Asborg, open it. Maybe there’s good news.”
“Nei, I don’t think so.”
Asborg finally tears open the letter. It is one page of cheap lined paper. She reads:
Dearest Wife. I have good news for you. I am in a place called Minnesota.
Asborg looks up, “Beret, do you know about Minnesota?”
“Ja, that’s where the Olsons went. Ole wrote and said he had to work in the lumber camps to get money to eat. It doesn’t sound so good to me.”
I have filled out papers to get 160 acres of land in Koochiching County. It’s all woods now but we will clear it and have our own farm.
Asborg’s voice is quiet but with a tremor that seems more pronounced with each word. The children, sensing something is up, have come from the other room to silently push next to their mor.
The best news is that I am working for a farmer in a place called Thief River Falls and he will buy tickets for you and the children to come here. He says you will get a letter from the shipping company in Kristiansand telling you what to do.
Now Asborg gulps and her eyes glisten but she doesn’t cry easily.
I hope the children are in good health. We will see each other again. Your husband, Torgus.
The room is still, then Asborg flings the letter as far from her as it will go, muttering…”When did he ever care about the children or anything but going going going? Why does he have to make me go too?”
This moment of emotion is over as quickly as it began. She looks at her children, her friend, her home and mutters fiercely, “That’s what it will be then. Ja. Jeg går. Yes. I go.”
Why do I imagine her not wanting to leave Norway to go to a new country? Maybe because she always seemed so unhappy, and maybe because, after a long bleak spell, Norway was full of new possibilities. Why emigrate then?